Plan on Hiking/Backpacking? Which pack is for you?

Thinking about purchasing a backpack?

There is a lot to consider when buying a backpack whether this is your first pack or if you are a seasoned veteran.  For the newbies out there, try on different packs and rent from an outdoor retailer to find what will work for you.  Take time to educate yourself about features and durability of packs.  Did you know that there are packs designed specifically for womenOutdoor Gear Lab has an exceptional page on how to choose the best backpacks.

Pack Types

Let’s start off with types of backpacks.  There are three general categories of backpacks available to choose from: Daypacks,  External Frame Packs and Internal Frame Packs.


These packs are typically used for single-day hikes or climbing.   In general, daypacks are soft-backed or frameless. Daypacks are designed to be used with light loads of weights no more than 15lbs. Quality daypacks have hip belts that are there to keep the load from bouncing around as you walk.

External Frame

External frame packs are usually associated with large heavy loads.  These packs carry the weight away from your body while transferring the load to your hips.  Most companies are not as focused on design and production of these packs as Internal Frames have grown in popularity.

Internal Frame

Internal frame packs are also useful for bigger, heavier loads. The internal frames in these packs are usually made from Delrin rods, aluminum stays or plastic frame sheets.  These internal frames are designed to contour your back, keep the weight closer to your spine, and transfer the weight to your hips.

Type Size Description Best Use
Waist Packs / Hip Packs / Fanny Packs / Lumbar Packs Up to 10 liters Although not a true backpack these are a great choice for their simplicity and cost. Day hiking and travel.
Hydration Packs 10 liters or less These packs have a bladder and drinking tube that the pack surrounds. They have shoulder straps and some have thin hip belts. Great for day hikes and fitness activities.
Day Packs 15-30 liters Small sized  pack with shoulder straps. May or may not have sternum straps and hip belts to help with a larger load. Great for day hikes if you want to bring extra food and gear.
Medium Sized Packs 30-65 liters All the features of a day pack plus! There will be a significant improvement in the shoulder straps, sternum straps, waist belt and suspension. These packs place more of the weight on the hips and less on the shoulders. Ideal for multi-day trips where you are bringing gear to stay out in the elements.
Expedition Backpacks 65+ liters The suspension support is beefier than that of medium sized packs. Suspension is optimized to support heavier loads. Designed for expedition use or trail use where you would need to carry gear for weeks.

Pack Styles

There are many styles to choose from these days and you want to be sure that the features of your pack fit your outdoor pursuit! Each style has features in common and those that are unique and specific to the intended activity.

  • Backpacking Packs
    • Men’s or Women’s Specific Packs
  • Ultralight Packs
  • Daypack
  • Hydration Packs
  • Skiing Packs
  • Climbing Daypack
  • Mountaineering & Alpine Climbing Packs
  • Travel Packs

From Sierra Trading Post

Fitting the backpack

Perhaps the most important items to consider when fitting a pack is your torso length and waist size.  A pack can have all the bells and whistles, but if it doesn’t fit properly the performance will be compromised.

Section hiker has a nice write up about how to fit a back pack.  If there is a sporting goods store near you I advise going and have them fit a pack to you.  This is also a good time to look at the features of different packs and a to try packs on to see how they fit your body.

Adjusting your backpack

Shoulder Straps

  • Shoulder straps can be a rubbing nuisance if ill fitted or not adjusted properly.  To alleviate this problem, loosen up your sternum strap. If loosening the strap doesn’t work then you probably have a harness that is too narrow for you.
  • If your shoulders get sore it’s time for an adjustment of your shoulder straps.  The goal is to make sure that majority of the weight is placed on your hips and not your shoulders. If you make adjustments to shift this weight and you still have pain then it may be time to look at the weight in your pack or buy a new pack.

Sternum Strap

  • The sternum strap is designed to keep the shoulder straps on your shoulders. If you find that you have issues with IMG_0976a cinched sternum strap the shoulder harness is to large for your torso.

Hip Belt

  • A properly fitting hip belt will cover your hip bones.
  • A good trick to see if your hip belt is the correct size is to loosen your shoulder straps and see if the pack is resting on your hips.
  • The hip belt should not fall below your hips and if it does it may be too big.
  • A hip belt that is resting on your lower back rather than on the sides indicates that the belt is to short.

Final Thoughts

You will certainly hear people rave about their pack being the greatest pack.  Is this the correct pack for you though? Get out and try several packs before you make your investment.  Borrowing or renting a pack is a great bargain compared to purchasing a model that you have never tried.  Make sure your pack fits you properly because your backpack is your home during your hike. It will hold your shelter, clothing, food and all other extras you choose to bring with you. Making the right choice for your pack is an essential part of having an enjoyable experience on the trail.










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